On March 1, 2014, six and a half years after beginning my career in investment banking and one month after getting married, my wife Karen and I began a year-long sabbatical to travel the world. If someone had told me that in exactly two years I would be running a cemetery startup in San Francisco, my response would have included some use of the phrase ‘WTF'. Yet here I am, and I couldn’t be more excited to share the journey of how and why I got to this point.
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To say our trip was life-changing would be a serious understatement. We set off in search of adventure in a way that would only be possible at this time in our lives. We weren’t interested in waiting around for the promise of a comfortable retirement to live our dreams. We were intent on experiencing as much as we could in the present, instead of continuing to daydream about all the places we wanted to go and things we wanted to do from behind a desktop monitor, waiting for the ‘right time’ to magically present itself.
We began in Costa Rica in April 2014, and during the next three months we made our way down to Peru and Argentina, then over to Europe. A close friend’s wedding in Toronto brought us home for the month of July and provided an opportunity to re-calibrate and prepare for the longer and more ambitious 8-month Asia-Pacific leg of our journey. This part of the trip would take us the furthest outside of our comfort zones and into the unknown, and was primarily based around surfing, with one exception -- a one month trekking trip in Nepal, to experience the tallest mountains in the world.
Despite having spent a lot of time in the mountains of North America and Europe, the sheer scale and beauty of the Himalaya was something I had not been able to imagine. We decided to trek the Annapurna circuit, a popular unguided route that circles the Annapurna massif and would take us from an elevation of 760m (2,490 ft) in Besi Sahar, to 5,400m (17,770 ft) at Thorung La, and back down to 827m (2,700 ft) at the finish in Pokhara. Over the course of the three week trek, we also would pass near and within view of three distinct 8,000m (26,250 ft) peaks — Annapurna, Dhaulagiri and Manaslu — and countless others that were much larger than anything I had ever seen before.
On October 14, 2014, we were to pass the high point of the trek — Thorong La — after two weeks of trekking, but a storm had blown in overnight, depositing six inches of snow by daybreak. After consulting with the manager of the guesthouse at Thorung La Base Camp and being reassured that the storm and snow would burn off within a few hours, we decided to set out, knowing that the final camp was only an hour above us on the way. Little did we know that this was not an ordinary storm, but the errant Cyclone Hudhud from the Indian Ocean that would drop more than six feet of snow and take the lives of 43 people, 21 of them fellow trekkers just hours ahead of us on the mountain.
We made the decision to stop at Thorung High Camp that day, and almost certainly owe our lives to that choice. We spent five days stuck at High Camp, unable to move either up or down, due to the unstable conditions and rumours of the growing death toll. Eventually after a few failed evacuation attempts by helicopter, a group of 10 of us decided to make our way back down the way we came. Our second day of down-climbing involved stepping over the body of a man frozen in the snow. It was the first dead body I had ever seen, and after how close we had come to danger, it was a pretty intense experience.
Being so close to death reinforced exactly why I had wanted to take this trip in the first place. Nothing in our lives is guaranteed. Life really could end at any moment, and that is totally out of our control. In our comfortable western lives this is a fact that we are too often able to ignore completely. Realizing how close we came to the edge reinforced the notion that I needed to spend my life doing something that mattered. But what was the metaphorical mountain I wanted to climb, and what was the next step?
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We returned from our trip on April 1, 2015, with this question still at the front my mind.
Soon after we got back, I reached out to Sandy, an old friend I’d stayed in touch with over the years. We met in Switzerland when we were 18 years old and attending Neuchatel Junior College. Sandy was an entrepreneur at heart and also in practice, and someone who I’d always admired for bucking the system and not being afraid to bet on his own ideas. We caught up over dinner at his apartment in Toronto, and I told him all about our adventure.
We got to talking about the most beautiful places we’d been. It was quite a long list, but one place that particularly stood out in my mind was the north shore of Kauai, Hawaii. Karen and I had spent the first three weeks of February 2015 in Hanalei, including a 3-night camping trip on Kalalau Beach, a majestic place only connected to civilization by a 7-mile hike along the exposed cliffs of the Na Pali Coast.
I told Sandy about watching the sunset over Hanalei Bay with Karen. Earlier in the day we had learned that the ashes of Andy Irons, a world champion surfer, were spread in the water at the break Pine Trees. Andy had grown up in Hanalei and learned to surf at Pine Trees, the same break I had been surfing almost every day since we'd arrived. That night as we walked across the sand to find a suitable spot to watch the sunset, I looked at the giant trees that give the break its name. Thinking out loud, I said to Karen that I understood why Andy’s ashes had been spread in the water, knowing it to be a Hawaiian tradition, but couldn’t help but think how incredible it would have been to have some of his ashes planted under one of those giant pines.
The concept of being returned to the earth and becoming part of another life form seemed like such a fitting tribute. His own tree to watch over his beloved surf break for eternity. It was the most beautiful tribute and memorial I could think of; something his wife and daughter could see and touch, a tangible way to feel his presence.
It was at that moment that Sandy stopped me and told me about the idea for Better Place, a business he and Brad had thought of a month earlier, not more than a few weeks after my insight at Pine Trees. I was floored by the synchronicity of the situation, and though I had no idea of it at the time, that dinner would turn out to be a pivotal moment in my life.
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In order to stay financially afloat, Karen went back to work within weeks of our return, while I tried to figure out what was next for us. I wanted to find work that would improve the world in a measurable way, and to do so in a place that Karen and I could become our fullest versions of ourselves. After a year of experiencing so many of the wonderful places the world has to offer, it became crystal clear to us that we needed to spend much more time active and outside, something Canadian winters make virtually impossible for many months each year.
During our time away, I spent a lot of time thinking about what was next for me career-wise. Although there were a few desirable companies that synced with my goals, values, experience and desired location, I felt an ever-increasing pull towards branching out and starting something on my own. I had done a lot of reading about entrepreneurship and startups, initially sparked by becoming an avid listener of the Tim Ferriss Show podcast, and then by following my curiosity down the rabbit’s hole -- from biographies to psychology, outdoor adventure and even space.
As part of my early search I tapped into my professional network in Toronto and quickly received a few job offers that would have seemed quite tempting just a year earlier. But something about committing to 10-12 hours a day under the hum of fluorescent office bulbs helping a corporation achieve its quarterly targets didn’t seem fitting after all we had been through. Deep down I knew that compromising myself for the sake of convenience and security would be something I would regret for many years to come. I wanted to be bold and pursue my own dreams and ambitions, and find a way to both improve and enjoy this beautiful world in some meaningful way. As the time went on, the gravity toward starting something on my own wouldn’t release me no matter which way I looked.
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There were a few themes that guided me through this difficult crossroads. As a passionate outdoor athlete, I love spending time being active, taking risks and feeling the sense of awe and exhilaration of engaging with our natural environment. I know how much nature has the power to rejuvenate the mind, body and soul of everyone who experiences it, but yet it seems that as we become an increasingly urbanized society (and species), we are rapidly losing our connection to the earth. It is also becoming increasingly expensive to escape our man made surroundings and regularly access nature, to the point that in a bizarre twist of fate and irony, nature — the thing we have always tried to protect ourselves from — is quickly becoming a luxury product.
The core of my dream was to find a way for people to interact with the outdoors much more regularly, and to forge bonds with the natural environment, thereby increasing the quality of their lives and also helping to preserve the earth for future generations. It is no coincidence that the people most passionate about the preserving the environment almost always happen to be the people that spend time in and connect with nature. Jacques Cousteau once famously said “People protect what they love”, and I couldn’t agree more. Now more than ever we urgently need to respect and protect this beautiful planet of ours.
At the same time, I also wanted to find a way to help people live more in the present, to stop putting off their own enjoyment, goals and dreams. Culturally we’re encouraged to sacrifice our time and enjoyment now, banking both our time and money for a far away retirement, when we’ll have the freedom to do what we ‘always wanted to do’. Nothing in life is guaranteed, and our year away, specifically our experience in Nepal had shown me having a closer relationship with death is not something to avoid but rather to embrace. Being truly conscious of our own mortality reminds us of how fleeting our lives can be, and encourages us to live them fully, while we have the chance.
I had a few business ideas bouncing around my head that revolved around these concepts, but the more I thought about Better Place, the more I connected the dots between nature, life and death. In the summer of 2015 I took a deep dive into researching the industry and examining the numbers to see if it had the makings of a sustainable business. Somewhat to my surprise, it did. Better Place had both the potential for scale, and also a chance to initiate huge positive change with our collective relationship to nature, life, death and the workings of an archaic and toxic multi-billion dollar industry.
It became clear to me that the synchronicity embodied by Better Place was something I couldn’t ignore, and with Karen’s blessing, I made the decision to go all in. I knew deep down that no matter what happened, I wouldn’t regret my decision to take this leap. I also knew that if I let this opportunity pass me by, I would spend the rest of my life wondering “what if”.
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So here we are, roughly one year after that fateful dinner, having relocated to San Francisco to create something meaningful under the banner of Better Place Forests. I couldn’t be more excited to work with Sandy and Brad, and to build a company that I see as not only incredibly positive for this world, but also something that instills me with a great sense of purpose and pride.
I look forward to having you follow along and get involved on this journey of ours, and we appreciate all of your help and support at every step.
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For the full story of our journey in Nepal, please check out my lengthy two-part post from our travel blog.
Written by Jamie Knowlton
Jamie is a co-founder of Better Place Forests and is focused on forest acquisition and development.